In 1911, famed cartoonist Winsor McCay debuted one of the first animated cartoons, based on his sophisticated newspaper strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” itself inspired by Freud’s recent research on dreams. McCay is largely forgotten today, but he unleashed an art form, and the creative energy of artists from Otto Messmer and Max Fleischer to Walt Disney and Warner Bros.’ Chuck Jones. Their origin stories, rivalries, and sheer genius, as Reid Mitenbuler skillfully relates, were as colorful and subversive as their creations—from Felix the Cat to Bugs Bunny to feature films such as Fantasia—which became an integral part and reflection of American culture over the next five decades.
Pre-television, animated cartoons were aimed squarely at adults; comic preludes to movies, they were often “little hand grenades of social and political satire.” Early Betty Boop cartoons included nudity; Popeye stories contained sly references to the injustices of unchecked capitalism. “During its first half-century,” Mitenbuler writes, “animation was an important part of the culture wars about free speech, censorship, the appropriate boundaries of humor, and the influence of art and media on society.” During WWII it also played a significant role in propaganda. The Golden Age of animation ended with the advent of television, when cartoons were sanitized to appeal to children and help advertisers sell sugary breakfast cereals.
Wild Minds is an ode to our colorful past and to the creative energy that later inspired The Simpsons, South Park, and BoJack Horseman.
Advance Praise for Wild Minds:
“If the twentieth century had its court painters, they were the cartoonists and animators employed by Walt Disney and other creative wizards of pop culture. In his engrossing, entertaining, and deeply researched Wild Minds, Reid Mitenbuler recreates the world of these classic animators — the largely unsung Holbeins and Van Dycks of the Magic Kingdom and at Warner Bros., Paramount, and smaller studios. There’s a direct evolutionary path, we come to realize, from the genius of Winsor McCay, a century ago, to the subversive tropes of South Park. The legacy of the animators is one we can’t escape — and don’t want to.”—Cullen Murphy, author of Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe
“In this absorbing history of animation, Reid Mitenbuler illuminates lives both deservedly familiar (Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Chuck Jones) and tragically forgotten (Winsor McCay, Émile Cohl). The prose is terrific, the insights frequent, and the information fascinating. Mitenbuler deepens one’s understanding not only of his subject, but the world itself. It’s everything you want a nonfiction book to be.”—Tom Bissell, author of Creative Types and coauthor of The Disaster Artist